Category Archives: Vabook08

The last ones to leave the party

I was just getting comfortable at last night’s Authors’ Reception when the caterers corked the wine and disappeared the casseroles and the party volunteers began nudging us toward the exits. Disappointed that the hobnobbing had come to an end, I gathered my things and stuck some silver into my purse (just kidding, Casteen), prepared to take my leave in as much unpublished, un-agented glory as I had arrived. Just then, from the heated tent on Carr’s Hill, came twin 12-year-old girls dressed in matching outfits of pristine white. They accessorized with pearl tiaras, silver slippers, and hair that hadn’t been cut since they were babies. “What have we here?” I thought, moving to block their path to the exit.

The J.B.B. Winner twins Brittany and Brianna

“Are you elves or fairies?” asked the man beside me.

“We’re humans,” said one of the twins, smiling like her life depended on it. She was evidently used to answering patronizing questions from grown-ups.

“Please tell me you’ve written a book,” I said.

“We’ve written three,” said the girl.

The identical twins make up two-thirds of the author J.B.B. Winner, a fictional composite of the sisters and their father. Together they have written the Strand Prophecy sci-fi series. To promote the books and to inspire their fellow middle-schoolers, the girls tour the nation dancing, lip-syncing, and speaking about literacy. Brittany/Brianna told me the edifying story of how they became authors, a story I later heard her recite word for word on the internet.

“Wow,” I said. “Let me tell you what I was doing in sixth grade. Worrying about tongue-kissing. Wondering if I could avoid it my whole life.”

Because Brittany/Brianna nodded her head with such maturity and understanding, I kept going. “That’s right. I was afraid of tongue-kissing. And then I started getting suspended from school.” B/B’s father hovered just out of earshot, but he was starting to look at me suspiciously. I knew I had precious little time to corrupt these girls and to break down their preternaturally sweet and sophisticated personas.

“So,” B/B said, “Tell me what you do. Are you an author? What is your novel about?” I looked into the kind, interested face that B/B had probably practiced in the mirror before the party, and I forgot my cruel agenda. Someone asking about my novel! I no longer cared that she was 12, or that she dressed like the princess in A Neverending Story, or that her parents had probably read her Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People every night before bed, or had made her watch Hannah Montana interviews and concert videos on loop until she got her act down. I no longer cared because she had asked me about my novel, and we were going to be new best friends, and I was going to tell her about myself until her parents dragged her away from the party to the secret empire-building, underground training lair she shares with her sister and a thousand white stage costumes.

Book Festival book reading controversy about books!

Today The Biological Imperative devotes an entire blog post to a stupid question asked by a bald man at a book reading. And I am glad. It was a silly question and it deserves to be ridiculed on the blogs.

The set-up:

Last night the blind professor, Selvi, and I threw back a few drinks and then attended a Virginia Festival of the Book reading at UVA’s Culbreth Theater. The program – Wayward Sons – featured Colm Toibin and Nathan Englander, both terrific writers. [Englander is not Israeli, as Selvi states on her blog. He’s from New York. But strangely enough, he used to work out in the same Jerusalem gym as Benjamin Netanyahu.] In person, Toibin is eloquent and charming. Englander is spasmodic (a nicer word than “spastic”) and equally charming. After reading from their respective books, they reclined in the velvety green armchairs onstage and fielded questions from the audience.

The stupid question:

Selvi paraphrases the question in question like this: “We Americans come from nothing, we inherit nothing. What influence do your cultures have on your writing?” I would paraphrase it more like this: “Toibin, you’re Irish. Englander, you’re Jewish. Hence you automatically have more culture in your little fingers than all Americans put together. How does that make you feel?”

Read More →

Ponderous essays, paraphrased

Because I’ve been sick, I’ve only had the energy to bookmark what I would normally blog about. I am feeling stronger today, but the thought of posting anything lengthy makes my Streptococcus flare up. So here are some links – insert writerly charisma where appropriate:

1) Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris pummeled You Don’t Love Me Yet by Jonathan Lethem in Round Two, Match Two of the 2008 Morning News Tournament of Books. Maud Newton, much like the C.L.A.W. Under the Table Umpire (whose eyes sometimes stray up girls’ skirts), judged this round fairly and squarely. I’m glad that Maud has her blog back after it was hacked by Russian pharmaceutical companies. And I’m glad that today’s bracket winner is a book that I’ve actually read. Although it makes me feel like I should have wagered some money.

2) This wild guy, author of Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War, is attending next weekend’s Virginia Festival of the Book. I can’t wrap my head around Joe Bageant. I know he’s some kind of mad genius. I think we share a few social and political ideals. I stand in awe of the subtitles to his rant-like essays, i.e. “Freedom vs. Authority under the 40-foot pulsating rainbow vagina.” He might be the answer to all of America’s problems. He might also be too fundamentally liberal for me. Did I just say that? Blame the sickness. In any case, it will be fun to watch him drink martinis and start fights with some of the more right-leaning members of the book festival.

3) In an essay called “What Makes Mathematics Hard to Learn?,” Marvin Minsky states that one of the reasons for the difficulty is math’s “linguistic desert.” In other school subjects, students learn thousands of new words each year. In math, the vocabulary is limited when it doesn’t have to be. I think it’s interesting that Minsky cites language as something that can help inspire kids to learn numbers. The math and English geekdoms are not so incompatible after all.

4) Finally the editors of the brand new Scoff Magazine: For the Discerning Philistine updated their site. It’s about time the 1,000-foot-tall Palomino who spell-checks the thing introduced herself.

5) My amazing grandmother Bunny is going to talk in Williamsburg, Virginia next week about her time in the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Services) during World War II. This morning I found a WAVES website devoted to telling the stories of veterans. Now I understand why my grandmother feels the need to assert that she did not “bat her eyelashes or bat her tail around” to get ahead in the military. Those WAVES were hot. And they went through boot camp. And they looked even better in uniform than the men. Take that, Hitler.*

I am sleepy now. War is exhausting.

*Why do I always want to say “Take that, Hitler” as if I had anything to do with his downfall? Being born in 1980 makes me feel so ineffectual sometimes. But not as ineffectual as being born a monkey.

Advice to VA Festival of the Book authors from a local gal

Seriously, writers. How psyched are you to be coming to Charlottesville, Virginia? Can you believe the Festival is almost here, practically on top of us, like the imminent eruption of a volcano? Can you believe that in just TWO WEEKS you will be consorting with local people and students in a sedate, literary atmosphere? Can you stand it? God, I’m excited.

I want all you writers to enjoy yourselves in Charlottesville so you will return some day soon with more deep thoughts and dollar bills. I want you to spend your Festival of the Book time not only talking about books (bleh, right?), but also absorbing some local flavor. In keeping with this sentiment, I invite you to a sleepover at my house lasting Wednesday through Saturday nights. If you haven’t already booked a hotel, please come over. I will serve a continental breakfast between 7 and 11 every morning. I don’t think the Omni does that. At least not on paper plates.

I also want to offer you dining advice. Whether you’re in the mood for Spanish, pan-Asian, diner, French, gastro-pub, or Mexican food, we have a restaurant for you. I will escort you to the finest restaurants in town in exchange for a free meal. If you want to survey the culinary territory in advance, cVillain has the best restaurant gossip. You can also check out the C-Ville restaurant listings, but they haven’t been editorialized. Please write to me before you try to eat out on your own.

Bookstores! We have a bunch, but the best one to get lost in is Daedalus on the Downtown Mall. New Dominion is right around the corner from Daedalus if you’re interested in buying books nobody else has handled or possibly sweat upon while running on a treadmill.

Coffee shops! Writers have an uncanny ability to sniff out coffee shops when they’re on assignment out of town. But I like C-Ville Coffee. Wireless access, cute barristas, and no hipsters* (because the manic kids climbing on the giant wooden turtle have run them off).

I need advice on what additional advice to offer. What more do you writers need besides food and books and places to laptop? We have a sex boutique, but I really want you guys to keep the weekend clean. We have some Thomas Jefferson odds and ends, but I’d prefer you to focus on me. Oh! I almost forgot booze. We have plenty of places to drink booze, but stay away from the UVA bars unless you are a 21-year-old literary prodigy who also likes Jagermeister. Come downtown with me. I will show you where the mature intellects hang out. In Eliot Spitzer’s pants! HAHA!

*Although – full disclosure – sometimes I wear my skinny jeans.

Local lit talent neglected at this year’s book festival

This year the Virginia Festival of the Book assembled, as usual, a spectacular forum of literary luminaries from all over the world. Unfortunately the festival recruiters inadvertently overlooked a handful of Charlottesville authors. Here are the local writers who I think deserve to be featured in the festival next year. Recruiters, take note.*

1. Daniel J. Meador – Meador may be best known for being a professor emeritus at the University of Virginia School of Law, but he is also the author of three novels: His Father’s House, Unforgotten, and Remberton. Additionally, he wrote the memoir At Cahaba, a fascinating account of Meador’s childhood in an Alabama ghost town plagued by floods. The book is especially interesting considering its degree of visual detail, constructed purely from memory. Meador has been legally blind for several decades.

2. David L. Holmes – Recent recipient of the Thomas Jefferson Award at the College of William & Mary, Professor Holmes is also the acclaimed author of the 2006 book of American religious history, Faiths of the Founding Fathers. Always a professor first and a writer second, Holmes has still managed to make a literary name for himself in the field of religious studies. He is currently working on a sequel to FotFF in which he explores the poor church attendance of Ronald Reagan, the Quaker origins of Richard Nixon, and the spiritual lives of the rest of the post-World War II presidents.

3. John Grisham – Much like J.D. Salinger, this local recluse rarely gives interviews, publicizes his books, or leaves his Charlottesville estate, hence we are forced to speculate on what Mr. Grisham, a writer of obscure legal thrillers, even looks like. Is he young? Old? Married? Does he have UVA basketball season tickets on the floor of John Paul Jones Arena? We will never find answers to these questions until the Festival of the Book lures Grisham from his misanthropic hidey-hole.

4. Jocelyn Johnson – Every time I suffer from another hysterical pregnancy, I think of Jocelyn’s terrific short story Pseudocyesis (PDF). And as a special bonus, her husband Billy Hunt is the official photographer for C.L.A.W. – the Charlottesville Lady Arm Wrestlers.

5. Matthew Farrell – Farrell runs the Hypocrite Press, an independent local publishing company devoted to “the underground subculture of downtown Charlottesville.” Publishing the prose of playwright Joel Jones, the cult Robitussin saga Concerning Big Fun by Gus “The Gus” Mueller, a brand new book of C-Ville short stories, as well as Farrell’s own “literary-satirical” fiction, Hypocrite Press makes virtually no money, but it maintains its artistic integrity. “And isn’t that what’s important?,” says the girl who is holding out for a six-figure book contract.

* PS I have also cleared my schedule for the end of March, 2009.

If you are remotely unstable, do not read this book

Justin Evans did not write A Good and Happy Child for mentally unhinged readers. Before you read this thriller, you need to be sound in mind and body, otherwise the book will mess you up. If you have graduated, like me, from your psychological helper person, or you never needed one to begin with, then you are allowed to read A Good and Happy Child. You will love it as only the sane can love something terrifying. If you have ever been visited by demons, witches, or have been prescribed anti-psychotic drugs, then stay away from this book. It will only make things worse for you.

Justin Evans looking boyish

Evans will appear at the Virginia Festival of the Book at the end of March. And don’t let his boyish haircut and eyeglasses deceive you – this man will make you pee your pants.

The bookshelf philosophy of mine, mine, mine, keep out

Today I feel compelled to weigh in on the vital blogworld debate over which books you are ethically allowed to display on your bookshelf. On one side you have the people who believe you should display only the books that you have read cover to cover. On the other side you have the folks who believe your books should manifest your aspirational self: you have never actually read the Dostoevsky novels on your bookshelf but you consider yourself the kind of person who reads Dostoevsky.

Fortunately I have now read enough books that I can relax and just buy the ones with appealing jackets.

My Mistress’s Sparrow Is Dead

A Good and Happy Child

Read More →

A book review of The Ministry of Special Cases in four parts

1. A SYNOPSIS OF NATHAN ENGLANDER’S THE MINISTRY OF SPECIAL CASES

Your only son was probably drugged and thrown out of an airplane. And yet you know you will never see a confirming body, because it’s disappeared with the rest of the victims of Argentina’s Dirty War. And your wife alternatively visits morgues, searching for her son’s face, and stares out her apartment window, waiting for him to walk around the street corner. And while your son is both living and dead – the most painful characteristic of the desaparecidos – you still have to work your day job knocking Jewish names off gravestones. You still have to walk through the cemetery, the cruel reminder that bones should always belong to someone and that someone should always belong to bones. Meanwhile you don’t feel guilty that the last time you saw your 18-year-old son, right before he was taken away by the secret police, you told him that you wished he’d never been born. You know that in the intervening days of torture chambers and one-way flights, he has grown up enough to know that you didn’t mean it. And so you walk around with part of yourself erased. Half your nose is missing because a plastic surgeon lopped it off to pay a debt. Your son has your nose, and he wanders with it somewhere, like a character in Gogol. You have exhausted all means of seeing your face again.

2. GREAT INTERVIEWS WITH NATHAN ENGLANDER

Englander and Rivka Galchen:

At some point, early on, I decided I liked the speed of pen and paper. It slows me down. I like the way it looks. And that doesn’t mean I won’t write the next novel on computer. I just might. And I just might do it in six weeks. And it just might be called The Big Booby Car Chase and contain one sex scene, one fiery car chase, and end with the bad guy shot in the eye, and the hero in love.

Read More →

I’m a blogger, but I also have feelings and wisdoms

I am facing my first big blogging dilemma. I am reviewing Nathan Englander’s debut novel, The Ministry of Special Cases, because Englander is coming to town for the Virginia Festival of the Book and when he arrives I want all my friends to be ready with erudite questions and posters for him to autograph. The book is excellent – I read it all in one sitting like it was Harry Potter – but I also want to tell you exactly why I liked it and why the people who didn’t like it were wrong.

And here I face my dilemma. The Ministry of Special Cases is a literary book and so it deserves a literary review. On the other hand, that’s what the back sections of newspapers are for. But I don’t want to demean the novel and myself by being all cutesy-funny-bloggy. I don’t want to turn ten years of Englander’s life into “A Postmodern Book Review Related through Dialogue between Wistar and Her Argentine Ex-Boyfriend Luis” (even though I thought about it).

So I’m not sure how I’m going to do this. If I hadn’t already lost three quarters of my reading audience, I might launch into the book review right now. But no, this kind of thing requires long-term planning, nail biting, another strip of bacon, preliminary bloggings, some upper body exercises, American Idol, and this New Yorker article about Abu Ghraib (cited in the back of Ministry). I also have to learn to restrain my innate facetiousness and self-obsession before the big day, much like Michiko Kakutani has to hold back her own fun-loving and adorable nature when reviewing for the New York Times.

The Virginia Festival of the Book is ready to kick some ass

I’ve been browsing this year’s crop of authors on the Virginia Festival of the Book’s webpage, and the list makes me proud to live in Charlottesville. Yes, C-Ville already has bragging rights for being home to the University of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, and that after-hours diner that serves a hamburger with a fried egg on it, but we are also cool enough to entice TWO Tantric sex experts (who I’m pretty sure are having sex with each other), a former Black Panther, and an authority on American swimming pools to come to town for the world’s best book festival.

And this year I do not have to love the luminaries from afar because I. . .am attending. . .the Authors. . .Reception! In fact, anyone with $25 is attending the Authors Reception, but I plan to make a powerful impression. I have been studying the headshots and bios of the Festival participants so I will be able to approach them confidently at the party:

Me to Famous Author – Hello, aren’t you so-and-so who wrote such-and-such, my favorite book of all time?

Famous Author – Why yes! Aren’t you lovely! Here, have a book contract. [In my fantasy, authors give each other book contracts and cash advances.]

Me to Another Famous Author – Hello, aren’t you so-and-so who wrote such-and-such, my favorite book of all time?

Other Famous Author – Send your novel manuscript to my Manhattan office right away. Let’s get you a book contract!

I have bookmarked a few people who I am most looking forward to accosting at the reception. Here is an abbreviated list:

1) Taylor Atrium, author of The Headmaster Ritual. He’s adorable. He’ll probably be hitting on me all over the place. And I will humor his advances because he got his MFA from Virginia.

2) Nathan Englander, Author of The Ministry of Special Causes. I plan to review his novel on my website. This will be a special treat for all those who have not been lucky enough to read my college English papers, in which I analyzed every book through the lens of either masturbation or cannibalism.

3) Colm Toibin, author of Mothers and Sons. I gave this book of short stories to my grandmother (who has EIGHT sons) after falling in love with the author on NPR. She found it depressing, so I am sure to find it invigorating.

4) George Garrett. I probably won’t get a chance to talk to him since he will most likely be occupying a golden throne hoisted by underprivileged child poets.

5) Vigen Guroian, because he’s a professor at Loyola Baltimore where my baby brother plays (Division 1!) lacrosse. I want to convince Guroian to keep an eye on my brother and make sure he gets enough to eat.

6) The Tantra people

7) Jonah Lehrer, author of Proust Was a Neuroscientist, even though virtually every book critic’s response to this book was “No, Proust wasn’t.” This guy is only a breath over 18 and he has already taught at Oxford and written a bestseller.

8 ) Lisa Russ Spaar, poet and UVA professor. I just think she’s really nice and also talented. I will probably share my hors d’oeuvres with her.

So I think we’re all pretty psyched now for the Virginia Festival of the Book. Authors, try to psych your way into getting out your checkbooks, drafting our contracts, and/or preparing your laudatory jacket blurbs for my debut novel. In return, I will try not to stalk you after the reception is over.